The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen
When deciding upon an agency to assist in one’s travel preparations always ask for references from at least three satisfied clients. Without this precautionary step, a lady traveler never knows what might happen and worse, where it might happen.
—The Lady Travelers Society Guide
It certainly did not look like the type of place where genteel, older ladies were bilked out of their life savings. Nonetheless—India Prendergast narrowed her eyes—it was.
India resisted the urge to tap her foot impatiently. She stood second in queue to reach a table set up near the door of one of the smaller lecture rooms in the grand mansion in Bloomsbury that housed the Explorers Club. A number of women chatted near a table bearing refreshments positioned along the wall. Several others had taken seats among the rows of chairs facing a lectern. The stout lady in front of her wore a tall beribboned hat entirely inappropriate for her age and did not seem inclined to hurry although a lecture on What No Lady Traveler Should Leave Home Without was scheduled to begin shortly. No, the lady ahead of her showed no consideration for the time constraints and chatted blithely with the woman sitting at the table as if there was no one waiting in line behind her.
India wouldn’t be here at all if anyone had responded to her letters demanding information as to the whereabouts of her dear cousin, Lady Heloise Snuggs. In spite of the exotic nature of her name—a cross she had long ago learned to bear—India had no desire for travel and did not find the promise of adventure to be found in foreign lands to be the least bit enticing. She didn’t understand why any otherwise sane and sensible woman would want to pursue such foolishness. No, the only thing that had brought her here today was concern verging perilously close to abject fear.
It had been nearly six weeks since India had received so much as a brief note from Heloise and, even given the inefficiency of postal service outside the empire, it was not at all like her. Indeed, until then, India had received a letter at least twice a week, overflowing with her cousin’s delight at the exploration of those places she’d only read about in books. It had long been Heloise’s dream to travel the world and when she discovered the existence of The Lady Travelers Society and Assistance Agency—far less imposing than anything run by men—it appeared that dream was now within reach.
The room filled slowly with other ladies, the youngest of whom had obviously passed the age of fifty, just as Heloise had. And exactly like Heloise, India suspected they all had dreams of exciting exploits in exotic places, no doubt with a handsome, virile stranger by their side. What utter nonsense.
While India had been uneasy about Heloise sallying forth to discover the world beyond England’s shores three months ago, she couldn’t bring herself to express her concerns and dampen her cousin’s enthusiasm. She’d never seen Heloise quite that excited. Nonetheless, anything could happen to a lady traveling alone even if Heloise was accompanied by her maid, the competent no-nonsense Frenchwoman—Mademoiselle Marquette. Perhaps if India had expressed her concerns . . .
No, India firmly pushed the thought aside and, with it, the dreadful apprehension that had weighted her heart in the last few weeks. She was fairly certain Heloise would not have listened to her anyway. Regardless, she would never forgive herself if anything happened to the older woman. India was not one for frivolous emotion but Heloise had claimed a place in India’s heart from very nearly the moment they’d met.
Some twenty years older than India, Heloise was India’s mother’s cousin and the only family India had left in the world. She’d given her a home when India’s parents had died—taking up the responsibilities of raising an eleven-year-old girl. Heloise had funded her continued schooling at the prestigious Miss Bicklesham’s Academy for Accomplished Young Ladies, setting aside enough for a respectable dowry for India, should that become necessary. It hadn’t which did seem for the best. Very little of what India had observed about men inclined her at all toward chaining herself to one for the rest of her days.
Heloise had come to India’s rescue when she was needed and India would do no less for her now. Besides, the thought of losing her was entirely too much to bear.
At last the lady in front of her moved off to take a seat and India stepped forward.
“How may I help you, miss?” The blond woman sitting at the table smiled up at her.
“I should like to join the Lady Travelers Society,” India said firmly. It had been the suggestion of her employer, Sir Martin Luckthorne, that the best way to find out the whereabouts of Cousin Heloise might well be to join the society herself.
“How delightful.” The blonde beamed and India’s distrust wavered slightly in the wake of the woman’s genuine smile which did seem the best part of her. Oh, she was not unattractive but neither was she especially pretty. Not someone one would notice on the street one way or another. In that she and India were similar and the tiniest pang of regret stabbed India at her deception. Still, it couldn’t be helped. India returned her smile. The woman appeared close in age to India as well, something else they had in common. At not quite thirty it was clear they were the youngest in the room. “Do you plan to travel then?”
India hesitated. “My plans are uncertain at the moment.”
“Oh.” The blonde drew her brows together. “Most of our members join precisely because they wish to plan their future travel.”
“Oh, I do wish to plan my future travel,” India lied. “I’m simply not sure exactly when the future might arrive.”
“That’s something else then, isn’t it?” The blonde nodded in sympathy. “I understand completely. Some of us do not have the means to wander the world simply because we wish to do so.” A determined note sounded in her voice. “However, making preparations for the future is exactly why the Lady Travelers Society was started.”
“By experienced travelers I assume?” India asked although she knew full well who the alleged founders of the organization were.
“Oh my yes.” A proud note rang in the other woman’s voice. “Surely you’ve heard of Sir Charles Blodgett?”
“I’m not certain. . .”
“He was quite famous for his travels and expeditions and explorations. One of the premiere members of the Explorers Club itself. Lady Blodgett lost him ten years ago now I think.”
India nodded, not entirely sure if Sir Blodgett had died or had simply been lost in the jungles of some hot, horrid, uncivilized country.
“Let me think, where was I?” The woman’s brow furrowed. “Oh yes, I was telling you about the founders of the Society—Lady Guinevere Blodgett and her dearest friends, Mrs. Persephone Fitzhew-Wellmore and Mrs. Ophelia Higginbotham. Well, more like sisters really than friends. They were all married to men of adventure and travel although Sir Charles was the most famous of the lot. The poor dears are all widows now but they do indeed know a great deal about the rigors of travel and the adventures to be found on a tramp steamer traversing the globe or sailing the river Nile in a felucca or—”
“So Lady Blodgett and her friends are the ones arranging tours and travel for members?” India interrupted trying to hide her impatience.
“That would stand to reason wouldn’t it? They are all so knowledgeable.” The woman paused. “Although I must confess, I’m not well versed in the running of the society even though I did join shortly after the society was formed. I only began to lend my assistance here last week—as a favor to Mrs. Higginbotham and the others—until someone is hired to manage the organization. The society has grown far faster than anyone ever expected.”
“The society is relatively new, isn’t it?” Yet another question India already had the answer to but one never knew what further information one might uncover by pretending to be less informed than one was.
“It began about eight months ago and sorely needed if you ask me.” The woman’s lips pressed together in a firm line. “In this day and age there is no reason why a woman cannot travel the world if she so desires to see those sights she has only dreamed about.”
“No reason except . . . funding.” India studied the other woman closely.
“There is that of course. And fear of the unknown I suppose.” She shook her head. “It’s rather sad when we don’t pursue our heart’s desire because we’re afraid that it might not be as wonderful as we had hoped.”
India tried not to stare but it was obvious this woman was the worst sort of unrealistic dreamer. “About the charges? For membership?”
“Yes, of course. One pound for a month to month membership or ten for a full year membership.”
“And that provides?”
“The lectures on travel—lectures are usually once a week—along with the meetings with like-minded women such as yourself. However, the majority of the monthly dues is set aside to provide future payment for arranging the details of a travel itinerary.”
“So when I decide to actually travel . . .” India chose her words with care. “I have already paid for any charges for the arrangement of transportation, hotels, tour guides, that sort of thing?”
“For the most part, although I believe there is also another, relatively insignificant fee. To pay for additional expenses incurred in the arranging of itineraries. To be expected, of course.”
“Of course.” And exactly as India suspected.
The woman picked up a printed form from a stack of papers. “Now then, if you would fill this out you may bring it, along with payment, if you decide to return. There is no charge for your first lecture.”
“How very generous.” Or clever.
“Not at all,” the blonde said, rising to her feet and handing India the paper. “You can’t fail to delight in Lady Blodgett’s tales and sage words. If you have even the tiniest flicker of yearning for the excitement of travel, Lady Blodgett will fan it to a full blaze.” She smiled. “I should introduce myself. I’m Miss Honeywell and I have no doubt you’ll be joining us.”
“I am Miss Prendergast”—India nodded curtly—”and I suspect you’re right.” Again that annoying sense of guilt stabbed her. She simply wasn’t used to deception. “How many members do you have?”
“I’m not certain. But more than ninety I believe.”
“That’s most impressive.”
“It is indeed. The Society first met in Lady Blodgett’s parlor but now there are entirely too many of us for that. Because of the ladies’ husbands’ long association with the Explorers Club, the society was allocated an office here and permitted to use this room for meetings and lectures three days a week.”
“How very generous.”
The other woman scoffed. “They couldn’t very well turn down the request of the widow of Sir Charles Blodgett.”
“I would think not.” India forced a note of indignation to her voice. “Do tell me about Lady Blodgett and the others. They sound lovely.”
“Well, I have known Mrs. Higginbotham for a number of years. She and the others knew my . . .”
Either Miss Honeywell was the most sincere woman India had ever met or she was an accomplished actress. The more the blonde waxed on about the virtuous Lady Blodgett and her cohorts, the more India suspected Miss Honeywell was a total innocent. And India had always trusted her ability to assess character.
If the three ladies were as guiltless as they seemed to Miss Honeywell, perhaps there was indeed a man behind the scenes maneuvering the old dears like a master puppeteer. That was the thought of Inspector Cooper of Scotland Yard. He had spoken to India at the request of Sir Martin. But as dashing as he was with his slightly unkempt fair hair and his broad shoulders, he was most annoying in his refusal to acknowledge there was something amiss with the Ladies Travelers Society. He said, as there had been no complaints about the society, there was nothing the authorities could do. India had certainly complained quite loudly but apparently the complaints of one lone woman were insufficient. He further said Heloise’s lack of communication was no doubt due to the inferior nature of mail in other countries. He had added, in a vaguely chastising manner, that aside from all else, Heloise was an adult, accompanied by another adult and was more than likely having such a grand time she’d simply forgotten about writing home. As he said it with such an amused, condescending gleam in his eye, it was all India could do not to smack the smirk from his face. Instead, she settled for a strongly worded retort.
“I must introduce you to some of our members.” Miss Honeywell directed India toward a group gathered by the refreshment table. “You will notice that most of them are substantially older than you or I but you’ll find we have a great deal in common.”
A lifetime of savings, no doubt, and little resistance to the lure of far-off destinations. “I would imagine.”
“Mrs. Vanderkellen.” Miss Honeywell addressed the lady India had stood behind. “Do allow me to present . . .”
Miss Honeywell introduced her to several more ladies, all of whom were in the throes of anticipation about today’s lecture. Without exception, those India met were either widows or spinsters. A few minutes later India and Miss Honeywell took two of the few remaining seats left for the lecture. The room had filled nearly to capacity since India’s arrival. Obviously, the society was doing quite well.
An elderly woman strode up to the front of the room with a spritely step. Two other equally enthusiastic older ladies trailed behind, pausing here and there to greet the women already seated in a charming and gracious manner, as if they were all the oldest and very best of friends and not shepherds leading unsuspecting sheep to a financial fleecing.
“Lady Blodgett is the speaker today,” Miss Honeywell said in a quiet voice that nonetheless failed to hide her enthusiasm. “The other ladies are Mrs. Fitzhew-Wellmore and Mrs. Higginbotham. You’ll like them, Miss Prendergast. They are all quite wonderful and extremely nice.”
“I look forward to meeting them.” India forced a note of enthusiasm to her voice.
Before her arrival, she wasn’t certain if the wisest course was to confront those in charge of the society and demand assistance in finding Heloise or to follow Sir Martin’s advice. He suggested she bide her time until she could determine whether or not this was a legitimate endeavor or some sort of fraudulent enterprise designed to siphon money from older women like her cousin. And every other woman in the room.
Lady Blodgett took her place at the lectern, the other two ladies seated themselves in chairs behind her and off to the right. Regardless of whether or not the ladies’ endeavor was above board they certainly weren’t least bit disciplined. Lady Blodgett continued to talk with a woman seated in the front row, the two other ladies on the podium waved to another woman then exchanged animated comments. Why, the entire room itself was still filled with feminine chatter. Clearly, with this sort of disorganization, it was entirely possible they weren’t fleecing susceptible females but were simply too scattered to keep track of them.
“I suspect members are always going on trips abroad?”
“Not at all,” Miss Honeywell said. “At least not yet. I’m not sure more than one member that I know of has actually traveled beyond England. It takes a great deal of time and preparation to arrange a trip to the Orient or the Grecian isles or the deserts of Egypt.”
“A great deal of time and dues?”
“Well, one does want to be prepared.” Miss Honeywell nodded. “And the ladies’ lectures are doing precisely that.”
“I see.” And the longer a woman stayed in London paying monthly dues, the richer the coffers of the Lady Travelers Society became. And wasn’t that an interesting thought?
India wasn’t sure if it was Mrs. Fitzhew-Wellmore or Mrs. Higginbotham but one of them abruptly stood, stepped to Lady Blodgett’s side and spoke quietly in her ear. Lady Blodgett winced and glanced toward the back of the room, then sighed and smiled in a resigned manner. India’s gaze followed hers.
A gentleman with a grim expression on his face and a leather satchel in his hand glared at the older lady. He was admittedly handsome with dark hair and broad shoulders, and appeared exceptionally tall but then everyone seemed tall to India as she was somewhat shorter than she would have preferred.
“Who is that?” she asked Miss Honeywell.
“Lord Charming.” Miss Honeywell fairly sighed the answer.
There was certainly something about the man, an air of confidence perhaps or something in the assurance of his stride and the set of his chin that, in spite of his serious expression, did seem to scream charming. “His name is Charming?”
The other woman snapped her gaze away from the gentleman, her eyes wide. “I didn’t, oh dear.” A blush washed up her face. “Did I really say that aloud?”
“I’m afraid so.” While India had little patience with women who mooned over men, no matter how attractive they may be, she couldn’t help but feel a touch of sympathy. Gentlemen who looked like Lord Charming rarely preferred more ordinary creatures like Miss Honeywell, or for that matter, India.
“I don’t know what came over me,” she said under her breath, then grinned. “I should have said dashing.” She laughed. “No, his name isn’t Charming or Dashing, of course, and he isn’t a lord, at least not yet. But he is the heir to the Earl of Danby. That’s Mr. Saunders. He’s the son of Lady Blodgett’s niece.”
“My apologies but it seems there will be a slight delay,” Lady Blodgett announced. “We should only be a few minutes but until we return please avail yourselves of the refreshment table. Oh, and—”her gaze flitted over those seated—”where is Miss Honeywell?”
“Yes?” Miss Honeywell stood.
“Be a dear, Sidney, and hand out this week’s pamphlets.” Lady Blodgett smiled and followed her friends to the back of the room. All three ladies remained smiling but India would have wagered all three would have preferred to be anywhere but here at the moment. Mr. Saunders opened the door and the three women filed through.
India rose to her feet. “Is he here often?”
“I really couldn’t say.” Miss Honeywell frowned. “He was here last week and that was the first time I’d seen him but, as I said, I am new in this position.”
“Lady Blodgett and the others don’t seem especially happy to see him.” India’s gaze lingered on the door.
“No, I’m afraid not.” A thoughtful note sounded in Miss Honeywell’s voice. “Lady Blodgett seemed quite pleased to see him at first. But no one appeared especially happy after Mr. Saunders and the ladies met privately. They haven’t been quite their usual, carefree selves since.”
“I see,” India murmured. Still, while Mr. Saunders’s connection to the ladies did seem important she wasn’t entirely sure of its significance.
Part of her hoped that this Lady Travelers Society was above board and legitimate. But if so, why hadn’t anyone here responded to her concerns about Heloise? If the ladies who managed the society weren’t simply taking money for services they were not really providing, why wouldn’t they want to do everything possible to recover one of their own? No, there was something decidedly wrong here.
As much as she hated to admit it, Inspector Cooper might well be right. There might be a man behind it all.
And it was fairly obvious exactly who that man was.
Still, at the moment, it was nothing more than speculation. Far better to face the inspector’s smug, superior attitude when she was able to present actual proof that someone had set up an organization for the sole purpose of taking money from those who could least afford it. Worse yet—taking as well their long-held dreams of adventures on foreign shores.
India’s resolve hardened. The overly attractive Mr. Saunders might well be able to fool three dear elderly ladies into being the face of his nefarious scheme but India Prendergast was made of sterner stuff. She absolutely would not rest until Heloise was safely home. And if one hair on the dear woman’s head was so much as ruffled, India would see to it Mr. Saunders spent the rest of his days in prison.
No matter how dashing and charming he might be.
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